Spam wars: the inbox is ground zero

Spam! (freezelight@Flickr)

In continuing this series about the war against spam, I want to address a concern raised by my Computerworld blogging colleague, David A. Milman. Experience tells him that -- despite advances in spam filtering -- SMB and consumer users are experiencing worsening spam problems. Let's dive into the first The Long View of the month...

Image credit: freezelight@Flickr

David has a strong opinion about this, eloquently expressed (albeit butchered by my quoting it):

If typical inboxes really were ... better than ... five years ago ... there'd be less need for spam filters or for taking the time to deal with spam.

I think this nicely illustrates the point I was making on Wednesday. If the typical user's inbox is less spammy than it used to be, it's because of spam filters. As more and more users are protected by better and better spam filters, users' exposure to spam decreases. And, do bear in mind that this improved inbox experience is despite the increasing amount of spam that spammers are trying to send. If the user's inbox is the battleground, we are winning the war. So the increasing use of better spam filters doesn't mean that there's now less need for spam filters. That's a bit too ouroboros-esque for me. [Today's unintentional Red Dwarf reference? -Ed.]

But that's always assuming that I'm right
when I say that users' inboxes are more free of spam than they used to be.

David is bang-on correct, when he says that statistics can 'prove' whatever you want. But I also need to raise the inherent dangers of basing a world-view on customers of a service business.

If we do this, we risk what statisticians call self-selection bias. In other words, customers who are seeking help with spam might not represent the typical user, because they're more likely to be... well, having problems with spam.

David is also insightful
about the time wasted by users dealing with spam:

The time it takes to deal with spam ... setting up a filter, verifying that they're really spam, or even just deleting them ... can be considerable. ... This is ... valuable time -- and they'll never get it back.

Indeed, there are two main activities that waste time due to spam. The first is the obvious one: verifying and deleting spam.

The other activity that wastes time due to spam is often overlooked, or at least under-estimated. It's the time spent searching for false positives. When legitimate email gets stuck in the spam filter's quarantine, users can waste far more time.

For example, they get a phone call from an angry email sender, who wants to know why they've not replied to their message from days ago. The user's never seen the email because it's hiding in the spam folder. Not only have they had to dig around in the quarantine to find the message, but they've also had to placate an angry correspondent with what amounts to, "The dog ate my homework."

Spam wars war

David A. Milman
Spam wars 2010

Richi Jennings
We're not losing the war

David A. Milman
Losing time is losing the war

Richi Jennings
The inbox is ground zero

David A. Milman:
Spam wars 2010: The last word

This second time-wasting activity wastes far more time than the first (although it hopefully happens less frequently). So it's important not to forget about this.

Let's return to the theme
, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record. How do today's much-improved spam filters relate to time wasted by end-users?

Firstly, improved spam filtering means less spam in the inbox, which means less time wasted deleting spam

Second, perhaps more significantly, today's state-of-the-art spam filters have vanishingly-low false positive rates, which means less time wasted searching for canine-masticated homework. [You're fired -Ed.]

The takeaway here is simple: if you feel you're losing the war on spam at your company or home, you probably need a better spam filter.

If you don't run your own email servers, your current service provider should be filtering at least 99% of the spam, with an imperceptible false positive level. So if a user sees more than one or two spam messages per day, there's something wrong. Thump the table; ask your provider why their spam filter can't do as good a job as, say, Google's free Gmail service

And switch providers if necessary. In most cases, trying to add your own desktop-based spam filter is a waste of your precious time.

As I promised on Wednesday, I'll talk more about modern spam filter techniques soon. I also plan to cover zombie remediation and botnet takedown, if there's interest out there.

What do you think? Don't be shy; comment below...


Richi Jennings, blogger at large
  Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email:

You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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